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DrFlux

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Engine Building 201
« on: July 31, 2012, 04:42:55 pm »
+6

Note: This is a rough draft. I'd love comments on this. I'm glad more dialogue is happening lately on engine building.

Engine Building 201

For all the articles written about big money, how often do you play something big-money-ish? Maybe 30%? Less? So lets talk about engine building, because that's what you are going to be doing in roughly 70% of your dominion games. We talk about BM alot because its easy to talk about. Talking about engines is harder because the situations vary so much, but there are general principles that apply to all engine building. Geronimoo also wrote an excellent article on this topic just recently, using the "starting kingdom" as an example: http://dominionstrategy.com/2012/07/30/building-the-first-game-engine/.

When building an engine, you want to develop the following three things: threats, consistency and economy. This is also roughly the order you want to prioritize the three. Note that these are not mutually exclusive categories, for example, buying a laboratory can be considered as improving all three axes.

Attacking

Attacking your opponent is really about denial of resources. Obviously the best and most effective way to do this is with cursers or ambassadors. Indeed the stronger the "attack", the more important it is to focus on this aspect of the game and "win the war". However, any time you have an opportunity to deny resources to your opponent, you should take it. It is important when attacking your oppenent to identify what they need. Your opponent opens potion? Embargo the alchemists. Your opponent has lots of silver in his deck from trader? Maybe you want to play margrave every turn to deny him provinces. Is your opponent building a +actions/+draw chain, and he has already bought a few torturers? Maybe you want to buy out all the hamlets before he can start effectively chaining them. Competing over a key card is a very important part of resource denial, and its important to identify the "lynchpin" resources, whether that is because they are just awesome (wharf), or because they perhaps provide something important for the board, such as a +buy or +actions.

Consistency

Consistency is about minimizing shuffle luck. The easiest way to do this is with a good trashing, such as remodel, upgrade, or chapel. When you are building an engine, even mediocre trashing such as lookout or remodel can be very useful(though you probably want to avoid develop in most circumstances). You don't need trashing to have consistency though, filtering (warehouse, cellar, cartographer) can either substitute if trashing is not available, or supliment, as its useful in many cases to filter out victory cards even in a "tight" deck. There are a few other odd cards that seek out specific cards, such as golem and hunting party, that can simulate a small deck as well. Finally, you don't neccessarily need a small deck for consistency if you draw nearly all of it, whether that is with tactician, wharf, or some other means. However you do it minimizing turns where you draw copperx2,estate, and two smithies is important.

Economy
Economy seems like an obvious part of building a deck, but its important to realize what are the long and short term goals for your economy. In the short term are you aiming to buy border village+torturer, or caravans? In the long term are you aiming for 1 province a turn because there's no extra buys, or do you have a plan to gain multiple provinces a turn by remodeling minted golds? In engines you are often being greedy: you want to trash down, draw cards, gain money, actions, +buys, all while attacking your oppoent. Because of this, cards that gain you other engine pieces (remake, horn of plenty, haggler, university), or build your economy quickly (hoard, mint), are an important part of building up either during or after the process of trashing down.

Winning the Game

Okay, so these are the basics of building an engine: attacking your opponents resources, making your deck consistent, and building your economy. So how do you actually win the game? I think one of the best ways is to think about how the end of the game might look, and build your deck with that endgame in mind. WanderingWinder wrote a great article about this idea: http://forum.dominionstrategy.com/index.php?topic=3033.0. Generally speaking, games are won or lost for the following reasons: winning a resource battle, better engine choices, or in close games, managing to edge out a victory by piling out or just barely buying the last two provinces. "Attacking" has already been discussed somewhat, although it cannot be stressed how important it is to find weaknesses in your opponents strategy, and exploit them. Lets discuss the other two ways of winning the game.

Pacing

Making better engine choices than your opponent means not building your engine in a box, but building based on the cards available AND the choices your oppoents make. The most important consideration is
pacing, or "how long is this game going to be". For instance, if Jack is on the board, and your opponent is buys one, you know you have about 14/15 turns till half the provinces will be gone. In that case, going for alchemist might be a bad idea, where as a faster engine like hunting party + X might be okay, especially if X is something spicy like baron or an attack or monument.

Lets take a sample game to look at the opposite end of the spectrum: http://councilroom.com/game?game_id=game-20120719-213949-a109baf3.html. Both Sea Hag and Young Witch were available, with Steward as the bane. Other relevant cards include hamlet, rabble, mint and alchemist. I had a suboptimal 5/2 start and decided to open steward/hamlet, to my opponents Hag/Steward. I know at that point that the game is going to be a slog, and even moreso when my oppoent buys a second hag. Instead of joining the curse battle (which I would have lost), I bought a second steward to keep my deck slim, and bought alchmists, which were fantastic in such a slow game, and allowed me to win, along with my minted gold economy.

In fact this is a good time to mention a learning experience of mine when I started playing dominion. I learned early on that cursers make it harder to build engines... which is true. And that buying trashers just to get rid of curses was a bad a idea... which is true. Except that if reasonably strong trashing is present,
and a reasonably good engine is present, neither of these statements are really true at all. In fact, cursers slow the game down so that your engine can have time to build up, and once your engine does start up, it often helps you play your attacks more often. Witch + chapel is good, but witch + chapel + laboratories is even better.

Getting back to pacing, two specific things that can change things are alternate victory cards, and piles that are likely to run out, such as caravans, fishing villages, or minions. In both of these cases, it is important to update your sense of pacing as the game goes on. If your opponent doesn't buy any caravans, they are less likely to run out, or if your opponent is trashing, they probably aren't going to be buying gardens.

Reach

Finally, the final way you can win is by just sneaking by your opponent to buy the last two provinces, or buy emptying the estates to three pile. It is important if you think a game is going to be close for you to build your deck with "reach". That is, make sure you have the economy and the +buys to grab multiple victory cards. Perhaps if the game is going to end on piles, you might want to buy an ironworks or a horn of plenty so that you better control when those piles empty out. Multiple hagglers and +buys is an excellent example of this: even though they don't get you victory cards, this combination can often give you the power to say buy the last four islands and at the same time completely clear out another pile. The following was a game where reach was critical: http://councilroom.com/game?game_id=game-20120717-131556-2933cfd8.html. It featured highway, bridge, horn of plenty, and no trashing. If my opponent had a one more buy he could have won outright instead of tied. Though it didn't quite come together for me, I was trying to focus on reach, with my horn and the extra bridges, while my opponent was focusing a bit more on consistency by focusing on highways and GMs. It was my thought that I could get one big turn, convert my horn into a province and empty and pile or two. It always hard in these situations to be sure what the right way to play is, but you should always have a plan. Of course one should pay attention to how much "reach" your opponent has as well.

Conclusions

In summary, building an engine is much more complex than simple big money games, but there are general principles you can apply. Attack your opponents resources, find ways to make your deck consistently "fire", and make specific goals for your short term and long term economy needs. As you do this pay attention to how you are going to win the game: "pacing" should strongly impact engine choices as well as when to buy victory cards, and "reach" is critically important, particularly in close or fast paced games.
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AdamH

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #1 on: August 01, 2012, 10:26:04 am »
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Nice article. I like engines and I love reading about them :-). A couple of comments if I may:

When you talk about attacking, you mention that +actions or +buy can often be a critical resource in an engine. In every case where I can identify a critical resource that needs to be contested, it's either been +actions or draw. When I say draw, I'm talking about cards that increase your hand size. If everything is there for a bridge megaturn, but there's no TR/KC and no way to ever get more than 5 cards in my hand, then I seriously need to think about the fact that I will never, ever, be able to play more than 5 bridges in one turn, and that's the best (unlikely) case.

Also, +Buy is a critical engine component, but I've never thought to myself that I needed to race my opponent to get enough +Buy cards for my engine to work. Unless those cards are coming from the Black Market or Prize deck, I never feel a need to deny them to my opponent, and if that's the case, I should probably reconsider building an engine that uses +Buy.
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philosophyguy

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #2 on: August 01, 2012, 01:22:15 pm »
+1

Great article, and I'm looking forward to the comments/revisions.

One thing worth mentioning is resilience/backup plans. Marin does this superbly; he designs his engines so that it doesn't really matter if he gets bad draws, awkward price points, or if his opponent beats him to playing attacks every turn. I'm becoming convinced that what separates top tier engine players from mediocre ones is that the top tier makes every turn productive, and they build their engines in a way that a suboptimal shuffle doesn't harm as much as it would with a weaker plan.
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verikt

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #3 on: August 02, 2012, 01:51:22 am »
+1

One of the major problems with competing for key cards is how fast it empties the piles. A lot of times I lose on piles before the engine kicks in right. I'd say sometimes pacing is not taking as many of a good card as you want, if it will give you more time to build up without worrying about piles.
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jomini

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #4 on: August 02, 2012, 02:03:18 am »
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Another way to ensure consistency is top deck control. Wt is phenomenal for this, e.g. buy a border village/torturer, reveal Wt, and then you start off with a big hand. Inn, Royal Seal, Develop, Haven, etc. can all let you get reliability without having a thinned down deck. Take develop, developing a gold into Kc/Non-terminal draw is just a very strong way to start every turn. Once you can gain a gold (mint, explorer, jack/mine, or enough cash to just buy one) every turn you can be sure that your engine will always hit. Another way to control deck top is to draw the entire deck, discard your surplus village/draw cards (e.g. secret chamber) and then play a +1 card (e.g. pawn).


Another thing to consider for reach is that engines have a much easier time of playing cards gained this turn, this turn. While the puzzles are crazy, you can often get a lot of mileage out of suddenly adding cards/value to your deck and playing them as you grab them. University/Wt is great for this - top deck your new shiny actions, draw them live (thanks to the +actions), and play them.
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verikt

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #5 on: August 02, 2012, 02:11:14 am »
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Inn is less reliable than wt or royal seal. I don't know how many times I bought inn to get cards in hand next turn, and got an absolutely crappy hand with no inn anyway.
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jonts26

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #6 on: August 02, 2012, 02:20:51 am »
+1

Good stuff here. A few more points that I think need elaboration:

1. On the issue of economy, the when is a huge issue. If there are needed engine components which also give income, generally it's ok to overinvest in these a little in the early/mid game, particularly if they are non-terminal. Good candidates are things like fishing village and bazaar. If there are no strong money giving engine components, perhaps you are counting on treasures or actions like monument/merchant ship, then when to really start getting your income can be quite tricky. These cards 'get in your way' if your card draw/cycling isn't good enough, but you need some way to get multiple engine cards per turn. Your starting coppers can only buy so much. So the answer to when often depends on how expensive your engine components are and how urgent they are to get. With more expensive components like KC or Goons, you may need to open up with more income in order to take these key cards down first. With cheaper cards, you can hold off a little longer until you are drawing larger portions of your deck.

2. Piles Piles Piles. Not all engine games end on piles, but they do often enough. Controlling the end game is huge. And a big part of that is knowing how much money and buys/gains you AND your opponent are likely to see each turn. If you are ahead with those, try to put yourself in the position where you can drain piles, and your opponent cant. If you're behind on that race, you need to consider greening earlier so you cant be piled out against. Also always keep an eye on estate/curse piles. Those are often the sneakiest things to drain.

3. Resistance to greening. Some engines are better than others on how much green they can hold before they get bogged down. And some of course never have to green. With more green resistance, you can hold more of the duchies/estates/alt vps before you collapse under the weight of it. The more green you can hold, the worse you can afford to lose the province split, and often the longer you have to set up.
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jonts26

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #7 on: August 02, 2012, 02:22:53 am »
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@jomini - your comment about topdecking is good. But you've seemed to have neglected scheme. Which is pretty good at topdecking things.
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DrFlux

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #8 on: August 02, 2012, 10:21:16 am »
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This is usually correct, +buy less frequently a contested resource than +cards. I'll correct this when I update the article.

However, I HAVE had several games where +buy WAS a contested resource, usually when something cheap like pawn is the only +buy. Even then, it was only a critical resource because it was a context where lots of +buy was important: peddler, highway or quarry games come to mind.

Nice article. I like engines and I love reading about them :-). A couple of comments if I may:

When you talk about attacking, you mention that +actions or +buy can often be a critical resource in an engine. In every case where I can identify a critical resource that needs to be contested, it's either been +actions or draw. When I say draw, I'm talking about cards that increase your hand size. If everything is there for a bridge megaturn, but there's no TR/KC and no way to ever get more than 5 cards in my hand, then I seriously need to think about the fact that I will never, ever, be able to play more than 5 bridges in one turn, and that's the best (unlikely) case.

Also, +Buy is a critical engine component, but I've never thought to myself that I needed to race my opponent to get enough +Buy cards for my engine to work. Unless those cards are coming from the Black Market or Prize deck, I never feel a need to deny them to my opponent, and if that's the case, I should probably reconsider building an engine that uses +Buy.
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Powerman

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #9 on: August 02, 2012, 10:32:33 am »
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Very interesting read overall, however there is one part that raises questions for me:
Attacking

Attacking your opponent is really about denial of resources. (...) Your opponent has lots of silver in his deck from trader? Maybe you want to play margrave every turn to deny him provinces. Is your opponent building a +actions/+draw chain, and he has already bought a few torturers? Maybe you want to buy out all the hamlets before he can start effectively chaining them. Competing over a key card is a very important part of resource denial, and its important to identify the "lynchpin" resources, whether that is because they are just awesome (wharf), or because they perhaps provide something important for the board, such as a +buy or +actions.

Firstly with the torturer one, how are you supposed to simply "buy out all the hamlets" before he is able to?  I mean, it sounds nice and all, but what kind of player buys more than 2-3 (number may vary) torturer without picking up villages?  And then, because he has a torturer chain going, won't he be able to buy out the hamlets before you can?  Plus, how do you get going if you are stuck trying to buy out hamlets while he is torturing you?

And with the wharf one, you talk about denying it to your opponent.  How are you supposed to gain all 10 wharves before your opponent can gain 1?  I'd find it hard to believe that if your opponent wants a card costing $5, they won't be able to get at least a 3-7 split, probably even 4-6 regardless of what you do.
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DStu

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #10 on: August 02, 2012, 10:38:09 am »
+1

Very interesting read overall, however there is one part that raises questions for me:
Attacking

Attacking your opponent is really about denial of resources. (...) Your opponent has lots of silver in his deck from trader? Maybe you want to play margrave every turn to deny him provinces. Is your opponent building a +actions/+draw chain, and he has already bought a few torturers? Maybe you want to buy out all the hamlets before he can start effectively chaining them. Competing over a key card is a very important part of resource denial, and its important to identify the "lynchpin" resources, whether that is because they are just awesome (wharf), or because they perhaps provide something important for the board, such as a +buy or +actions.

Firstly with the torturer one, how are you supposed to simply "buy out all the hamlets" before he is able to?  I mean, it sounds nice and all, but what kind of player buys more than 2-3 (number may vary) torturer without picking up villages?  And then, because he has a torturer chain going, won't he be able to buy out the hamlets before you can?  Plus, how do you get going if you are stuck trying to buy out hamlets while he is torturing you?

And with the wharf one, you talk about denying it to your opponent.  How are you supposed to gain all 10 wharves before your opponent can gain 1?  I'd find it hard to believe that if your opponent wants a card costing $5, they won't be able to get at least a 3-7 split, probably even 4-6 regardless of what you do.

Point is I think that this 4-6 can be really important, and you have to identify on which card it's important. Usually that's the one that is the only one of its type, so if there is only one Village, but Torturer and Rabble, you probably want to win the Villagesplit. If there's just Torturer, but two or more Villages, you want to win the Torturersplit.
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AdamH

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #11 on: August 02, 2012, 11:06:56 am »
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However, I HAVE had several games where +buy WAS a contested resource, usually when something cheap like pawn is the only +buy. Even then, it was only a critical resource because it was a context where lots of +buy was important: peddler, highway or quarry games come to mind.

Because of that quote, I understand what you're talking about. I hope you include that quote (or a similar example) in your article (just in case you weren't already planning on it).
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DrFlux

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #12 on: August 02, 2012, 11:19:14 am »
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Yes, like DStu said, just winning a split 6-4 can be critical. Note I'm not saying don't buy torturers yourself. But you should be opportunistic: say you each have two hamlets and two torturers, and you get a good chain turn and get 6 and three buys: I would buy three hamlets instead of a torturer. I might even just buy two hamlets with 5 and two buys.

Something that isn't mentioned much about +draw/+actions is that in the long run you want slightly MORE villages than draw. So usually you want to buy a terminal or two first, but double village buys can be very good if you have the +buy.

Very interesting read overall, however there is one part that raises questions for me:
Attacking

Attacking your opponent is really about denial of resources. (...) Your opponent has lots of silver in his deck from trader? Maybe you want to play margrave every turn to deny him provinces. Is your opponent building a +actions/+draw chain, and he has already bought a few torturers? Maybe you want to buy out all the hamlets before he can start effectively chaining them. Competing over a key card is a very important part of resource denial, and its important to identify the "lynchpin" resources, whether that is because they are just awesome (wharf), or because they perhaps provide something important for the board, such as a +buy or +actions.

Firstly with the torturer one, how are you supposed to simply "buy out all the hamlets" before he is able to?  I mean, it sounds nice and all, but what kind of player buys more than 2-3 (number may vary) torturer without picking up villages?  And then, because he has a torturer chain going, won't he be able to buy out the hamlets before you can?  Plus, how do you get going if you are stuck trying to buy out hamlets while he is torturing you?

And with the wharf one, you talk about denying it to your opponent.  How are you supposed to gain all 10 wharves before your opponent can gain 1?  I'd find it hard to believe that if your opponent wants a card costing $5, they won't be able to get at least a 3-7 split, probably even 4-6 regardless of what you do.
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DrFlux

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #13 on: August 02, 2012, 11:29:03 am »
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Powerman, I think you are right that when I revise I should stress that when I'm talking about resource denial, I don't mean complete denial. But when you grab the last three hamlets, it is a very important fact that your opponent can't get them. And that this is something you should think about when considering buys (but not the only thing).
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DrFlux

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #14 on: August 02, 2012, 11:38:15 am »
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About 1, this is exactly what I was trying to get at when talking about short and long term economy goals. One or two silvers can get you a key $5 (say wharf or haggler), and that card can help your economy while serving other goals. But if your engine is going to be fueled by nobles, you might need a little bit more money... You might not need any money at all if you are going scheme-conspirator. I will elaborate in the article.

I thought I talked about 2, but I'll see if I can be more specific.

About 3, this is actually something I considered writing a section about then ran out of time. :) Part of resilience is whether you can continue to pick up more engine pieces as you green. It is definitely worth a whole section.

I'll probably revise the article this weekend, until then I have limited time.

Thanks for the suggestions!


Good stuff here. A few more points that I think need elaboration:

1. On the issue of economy, the when is a huge issue. If there are needed engine components which also give income, generally it's ok to overinvest in these a little in the early/mid game, particularly if they are non-terminal. Good candidates are things like fishing village and bazaar. If there are no strong money giving engine components, perhaps you are counting on treasures or actions like monument/merchant ship, then when to really start getting your income can be quite tricky. These cards 'get in your way' if your card draw/cycling isn't good enough, but you need some way to get multiple engine cards per turn. Your starting coppers can only buy so much. So the answer to when often depends on how expensive your engine components are and how urgent they are to get. With more expensive components like KC or Goons, you may need to open up with more income in order to take these key cards down first. With cheaper cards, you can hold off a little longer until you are drawing larger portions of your deck.

2. Piles Piles Piles. Not all engine games end on piles, but they do often enough. Controlling the end game is huge. And a big part of that is knowing how much money and buys/gains you AND your opponent are likely to see each turn. If you are ahead with those, try to put yourself in the position where you can drain piles, and your opponent cant. If you're behind on that race, you need to consider greening earlier so you cant be piled out against. Also always keep an eye on estate/curse piles. Those are often the sneakiest things to drain.

3. Resistance to greening. Some engines are better than others on how much green they can hold before they get bogged down. And some of course never have to green. With more green resistance, you can hold more of the duchies/estates/alt vps before you collapse under the weight of it. The more green you can hold, the worse you can afford to lose the province split, and often the longer you have to set up.
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DrFlux

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #15 on: August 02, 2012, 11:48:37 am »
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One of the major problems with competing for key cards is how fast it empties the piles. A lot of times I lose on piles before the engine kicks in right. I'd say sometimes pacing is not taking as many of a good card as you want, if it will give you more time to build up without worrying about piles.

This is a good point, but I think it depends on your goals and your deck. If you are going to win the long game even if your opponent grabs more of card X, absolutely stop buying them. But if your deck has some reach and your opponent is going for a strong engine too, it may be beneficial to put yourself in a position that piles run out. The trick is figuring out how to set it up that YOU can empty the piles, but your opponent can't.
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jomini

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Re: Engine Building 201
« Reply #16 on: August 02, 2012, 12:02:05 pm »
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@jomini - your comment about topdecking is good. But you've seemed to have neglected scheme. Which is pretty good at topdecking things.
Nah, I just included it in "etc." Scheme, mandarin, courtyard, cartographer, and arguably many more all fall into the category of top deck control. What exactly counts as top deck control is subject to interpretation (e.g. spy an scrying pool do just a bit of it), so I will leave it to others to hash out exactly what merits direct discussion.
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